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Nov. 8, 2016

Blair girls' soccer advances to first ever regional final

by Benjamin Yokoyama, Online Sports Editor
After beating the Sherwood Warriors (7-7) in the regular season, the Blair Blazers (10-5-1) girls soccer team came out firing early and put two shots past the goalkeeper in their third round playoff victory. Blair has advanced to the regional finals for the first time ever thanks to young strikers up front and efficient passing in their own half.

Blair started the game off on the defensive. Senior Leah Savage and junior Aida Ayuk combined to stop a run down the right side early in the game. The teams traded possession quickly and often in the first 20 minutes. Blair's offense was produced mainly down the left flank by senior Claudia Burlinson, who took Blair's corners and was able to push the ball ahead to sophomore and freshman forwards Maddy Merrill and Noa Dorah. Although Dorah put three early shots on target, they were all saved by the Warriors' keeper. Merrill saw a through ball from senior captain Joelle Nwulu roll past just out of her reach a few yards from the goal. Eventually the forwards would begin to convert their chances.

With 20 minutes left in the first half, defender Rachel Dey stopped a Sherwood run down the center with a steal and a clearance, and Blair went on the offensive from then on. With 16 minutes remaining Nwulu kicked in a cross that got knocked around between a few defenders until Merrill punched it in to get the scoring started. Nwulu was on the attack soon after, crossing another ball in and trying to get on the end of a through ball by senior Katie Ozeroff. Finally with 7:45 remaining the Blazers were able to push home another goal after their relentless offensive. Dorah waited for a high bouncing ball near the penalty spot and kicked it with the left on the half-volley to the left of the keeper and into the back of the net.

The rest of the half Blair sat back and played defense through senior center back Eleanor Cook, carrying the 2-0 lead into the half. The second half was filled with more offense for Blair, but they couldn't finish their runs downfield. The offense seemed to run through Nwulu, who missed two shots herself but was constantly pushing the ball downfield. Savage defended the right side well and was able to run the ball up to seniors Claudia and Ellie Burlinson on the right side. The corners by both sisters penetrated the Warriors defense, but no Blair forward could get a foot to the ball to score a third goal. Nwulu thought it took the team a little longer than usual to get started, but once it began there was no stopping the offense. "Our forwards are great. We normally come out wanting to go fast, and today was a little slower. But we knew this game was really meaningful and everybody seemed to want it a little more," she said.

A scoreless Sherwood began to attack, missing a shot off the crossbar and failing to connect on a desperate cross with five minutes remaining. "Starting from the beginning our defense was really strong because we've all been playing together since 9th grade so we're all really comfortable with each other," Savage said of the back line.

With a minute to go Merrill stole the ball after a sloppy defensive play, but the goalie was able to make the save as the game ended with no second half goals. The Blazers were able to advance to their first ever region final. "We realized what a big accomplishment it would be, and before the game [coach Robert] Gibb read us all these comments from alumni in the Facebook group saying 'You have to make history!' so we were all really pumped up," Savage explained.

The Blazers will face Perry Hall (15-1) at CCBC-Essex on Tuesday night at 7.

Eleanor Cook is co-editor-in-chief of Silver Chips Online



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